“The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness” is one of the most recent of author Harlow Unger‘s nearly two dozen books. He is a former journalist, broadcaster and professor and has written biographies of John Quincy Adams, Patrick Henry, Lafayette and George Washington, among many others.
Unger’s biography of Monroe is, on a basic level, extremely readable and entertaining, but excessively opinionated and needlessly provocative. In contrast to Harry Ammon’s “James Monroe” (where the author seems reluctant to stray from the facts and offer his own opinions) Unger’s praise is consistent and one-sided. The reader almost begins to wonder if Monroe himself has been reincarnated as Harlow Unger.
To its credit “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe” manages to animate the fifth president in a way that Ammon was unable in his lengthier biography. And in many ways, Unger describes what seems the classic American success story: a person born into modest circumstances and without the benefit of tremendous intellectual gifts who, nonetheless, rose above his early station in life to become a strong leader and successful politician.
Though Monroe was not a strategic thinker (like Madison) or naturally charming (like Jefferson), Unger describes him as hard working, keenly observant, highly aspirational and personally affable. But he was often quite thin-skinned and usually seemed a step behind others in the the crowd he followed (which notably included James Madison). Nonetheless, he was unfailingly indefatigable and possessed enough “street smarts” to allow him to eventually succeed where other equally ambitious politicians fell short.
The author does a nice job abbreviating many years of history into a rather compact book, and non-historians will find Monroe’s pre-presidential years neatly summarized in a way that is easy to understand. Indeed, the years leading up to Monroe’s presidency account for nearly three-quarters of the book while his two terms in office take up a fairly small portion of the text. And if not for the author’s persistent bias, this would have proven one of the better of the shorter biographies of the early presidents.
But it is not only unfailing praise of Monroe that afflicts this biography; the author also proves excessively defensive on several occasions, rushing to shield Monroe (and even his wife) from criticism of nearly any sort. Unger blasts the notion that John Quincy Adams had anything to do with the Monroe Doctrine, he howls at critiques of Mrs. Monroe by her contemporaries (mainly relating to her ostentatious attire and stuffy receptions) and ignores fatal flaws in the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty which led Jefferson to reject it.
Fortunately, most of the author’s favoritism is obvious enough that it does not seriously detract from the reader’s experience. Many of his more dramatic statements are so broadly sweeping and seemingly shallow that they merely add levity to the biography (probably unintentionally). On the other hand, if they are serious observations, they deserve additional evidence and should be edited to resemble groundbreaking revelations rather than punchy, provocative one-liners.
As others have pointed out, missing from this biography is any meaningful discussion of slavery. Monroe was not, as far as I know, born into a slave-owning family but some point during his life he made a conscious decision to acquire slaves. However, this decision, and his personal views on the contradictions slave ownership carried for someone who fought for individual rights, is never explored in any depth. (But Unger is quick to point out that Monrovia was named in the president’s honor by a small group of grateful emancipated slaves.)
Overall, Harlow Unger’s biography of James Monroe was an easy, entertaining and enjoyable read. It does not suffer from a tendency toward unnecessary detail or weighty academic prose devoid of historical context – maladies which negatively impact a significant number of other presidential biographies. But it is too unbalanced to be taken as seriously as it might otherwise deserve. Monroe is a president who seems due more credit and notoriety than he receives, but this biography went too far in staking that claim. For entertainment value, Unger’s biography of Monroe deserves close to 5 stars. For unbiased enlightenment and scholarship, it merits perhaps 2½ stars.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars